I have to admit that there is a big problem with Christmas. What do we really think and believe as we listen to the Christmas stories and sing the Christmas carols. Can anyone in the 21st Century actually believe in all the tales from long ago of wise men, angels and shepherds? And when we come to the Virgin Birth, and the primary idea of Incarnation – God becoming human – surely we have passed the limit of what any thoughtful person can accept today? The Jewish scholar, Geza Vermes, in his book on ‘The Nativity’, suggests that the ‘truth’ contained in the infancy narratives, ‘belongs only very slightly to history and mostly derives from man’s hopeful and creative religious imagination’.
For me, the key to approaching these issues with any degree of integrity is found in considering the nature of religious language. On my bookshelves are titles such as ‘The myth of God Incarnate’, ‘The truth of God Incarnate’, and ‘The metaphor of God Incarnate’. These indicate the complexity and depth of the issues involved. It is possible to read the infancy narratives in a very literal way and see them as accounts of what actually happened. However, I consider it much more likely that the gospel writers had a far more profound aim in mind. They knew that in Jesus something extraordinary had happened in their midst. And they desperately wanted to tell others what it really meant – to point to its deep truth.
For me, that deep truth is best summed up in John 1:18 – ‘No-one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known’. This is wonderfully expressed in an exchange between Philip and Jesus which occurs later in John’s Gospel, ‘Philip said to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied”. Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, Philip, and still you do not know me? He who has seen me, has seen the Father”.’ Of course it is a mystery, but one which, if we ponder it, leads us into the true meaning of both humanity and divinity. And that is worth celebrating!